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Naples has always been ruled by foreigners. At least that's what they tell Sancia, who only gets rudimentary history lessons. She is the king's daughter, which means she needs to have enough education to make a passable marital prize. But she's also a bastard, and a woman, so the lessons needn't be that extensive.

"The Germans, the French, the Spaniards," says her legitimate brother, showing off his own lessons, and sniggers. "It's not until us that some Neapolitan blood got fucked all the way to the throne, sis."

For King Ferrante, too, is a bastard. Nobody but his own offspring would dare to mention this in Naples any more, but it is true. Ferrante is a bastard, and that is why the Spaniards claim the Neapolitan line of the House of Aragon has ended. Why they say it is time for the throne to revert to them, newly powerful and mighty, with the Moors at their feet, the Jews expelled, and a new territory over the seas claimed. This is why the French want the same, making a great deal out of the fact the House of Anjou used to rule Naples before the House of Aragon did. When Ferrante came to the throne, the Pope did not recognize him, and nobody expected him to retain his kingdom, not until they learned to fear him. For decades, he made everyone fear and tremble, his bastardy expunged in blood, dried up in the mummies he made of his enemies. But now he's old, and none of his children, truth be told, have the means to make anyone fear them.

"Well, then," says Sancia, who knows little of history, but more of the present than most people would give her credit for, and has as sharp or sweet a tongue as the company she keeps, "we should keep that Neapolitan blood on the throne by fucking. I must marry us power, brothers, and so must you."

There used to be talk of marrying her to this minor noble or that, but when Cardinal della Rovere comes to Naples, searching for aid and ranting about the new Borgia Pope, it becomes apparent they can aim higher. All of the Popes within living memory have had bastards, including the good Cardinal's late uncle, who made him a cardinal, but Rodrigo Borgia, who has named himself Alexander VI, is the first to not even bother with disguising the fact anymore; on the contrary, he glories in his offspring, and while della Rovere fumes about the corruption that allows the Pope to make one son a Cardinal and another the Gonfaloniere of the Roman Army and a duke to boot, the idea takes ever firmer form: why not marry one of the Pope's bastard sons? He has to keep her brother on the throne then, and as for Sancia herself, she will never lack for riches. It will be better than any other alliance in Christendom. Dukedoms, kingdoms even can fall into poverty. The Church never can. There will always be revenues paid for by the faithful. And as the daughter-in-law of the Pope, these will be her oysters to swallow.

***

Sancia's mother, Trogia Gazzella, is fat now, but the lines on her face are those of laughter, which is no little thing considering Ferrante believes in holding his friends close and his enemies closer, and would not have left a little thing like a shared daughter stop him from killing her if he had felt like doing so. Trogia had no family and no other influence to protect her. "Never think of tomorrow," she advised her daughter the last time Sancia saw her, which was years ago. "You could die tomorrow. Be merry today, take what you can get, and make men laugh. Maybe you'll survive and maybe you won't, but you'll have been happy. "

Her father can't give any advice, locked in his own, aging body. As for her brothers, there are the two Alfonsos, one legitimate and one a bastard like her, and Ferrandino, and at first, they are too busy with worry about what will happen if the French or their greedy cousins from Aragon decide to march to Naples. They want the papal match to proceed, and don't care with which son. Sancia corners their ambassador to the Vatican and hears the Duke of Gandia, Juan Borgia, Gonfaloniere of the papal armies, who'd been her brother's original suggestion, has loftily declined to marry a bastard, so it will have to be the youngest son, Jofré, of whom there is not even gossip since he's still a child.

It is for this she makes Juan Borgia fuck her in her father's room of corpses when he arrives, and makes sure to mention his own bastardy as often as she can.

"I'm the Pope's favourite son," he shouts while pressing her against the wall.

You're the tool I've picked to pleasure me, Sancia thinks, and I've made you do it inhaling dust and rotten flesh. You didn't even have enough will to carry me to a bed first.

Out loud, she says: "Well, that explains why he picked your brother to follow in his footsteps, my lord. My father doesn't want that for his favourites, either."

***

"I'll miss you, Sancia," says her bastard brother Alfonso, who has a sweetness that makes people like him and assures their legitimate brothers he will not follow their father's footsteps and want the throne of Naples for himself. He is the only one who also shares a mother with her.

"Don't forget to remind the Pope he has promised us assistance," Ferrandino says, ever earnest. "Your husband may be the youngest, but you can make your voice heard, surely. They say the Borgia Pope... likes the voices of women."

"In other words: if the old goat wants to sample you as well, ride him for all he's worth," Alfonso the Legimate, heir to the throne, adds and laughs.

"And why should I?" Sancia retorts. If there is one thing she can't stand, it is being taken for granted. "It won't be a pleasure, and as his daughter-in-law, I already have all the riches I could wish for. Why should I care what becomes of you, and Naples?"

Alfonso the crown prince quickly sobers up. "As Naples stands and falls, so do you, sis," he says, and for once, there is no taunting in his tone. "If the French or our dear cousins from Spain rule here, the Borgias don't need you any more, and an annullment will not even cost them money to procure."

Alfonso the bastard takes her hand and says: "Naples is our home. Surely you do not want to see it bleed?"

In truth, she doesn't. But she also knows that were she legitimate, all three of them would at least pretend that she was still a virgin, would proclaim outrage at the idea she might not be, and would phrase their advice along the lines of trying to win the friendship of her new family.

"I am a woman, brothers," she retorts. "And as a woman, I am used to bleeding."

****

Her wedding is celebrated in the most famous church in Christendom, even if St. Peter turns out to be somewhat small, compared with the great cathedral of Naples. There are plans for a new building entirely, her new young spouse tells her, being desperate to make conversation and grasping for topics, his nervousness palpable. Sancia has no interest in Roman building plans, but she finds little Jofré endearing. Unfortunately, she also finds him far too childlike to excite her, and can only hope this will change when he grows up. Making Juan satisfy her on her wedding night is easy, though he surprises her by asking her to be kind to his little brother. It is the first sign of friendly interest in anyone not himself she has observed in him. It disconcerts her a bit; she hasn't planned on seeing Juan as more than a tool.

There are more surprises. Once Sancia's own mother had lost the King's favour, she had been discreetly moved out of sight and retired to the country, and Sancia, who had to be raised at the King's court or else would have been forgotten, as happens to all bastards who do not remind their fathers of their existence, had rarely seen her again. By contrast, the lady Vanozza may not share the Pope's bed any longer, but she is still in Rome, not only wealthy but honoured, by her children, the Pope and the Pope's current mistress alike. The last amazes Sancia most of all. There has been little kindness between King Ferrante's mistresses, let alone his legitimate wife and anyone else, and Giulia Farnese, as opposed to Vanozza, is part of the old Roman nobility. And yet Giulia Farnese's deference and respect when adressing the older woman, who is rumoured to have been a courtesan before she became the then Cardinal Borgia's mistress, does not appear to be feigned. Or if it is, Giulia Farnese is a better actress than any Sancia has seen. As for Vanozza, her new mother-in-law has a gaze so sharp it could cut glass. She does not tell Sancia to be kind to Jofré. Instead, she tells a pointed story about her own husband, who, Vanozza says, did not set her heart aflame, but was and is her good friend.

"Lovers may desert you," she concludes, and if she means the Pope, she is not as obvious as to look in his direction. "Friends never do. But to be worthy of friendship, you have to prove loyalty and respect, my dear."

Sancia takes this as an admonishment not to openly shame Jofré, to be his friend if she cannot be his love. As it turns out, Juan, who has drifted close enough to overhear them, takes it as occasion to scowl and burst into a rant as soon as his mother has turned her attention elsewhere. Not that it occurs to him Vanozza could have noticed something about Sancia and himself, oh no; the theme of his diatribe is the unseemliness of Vanozza's continued association with "that shepherd", by which moniker it turns out he means his mother's husband.

"How can she be so selfish! It only feeds the rumours!" he thunders, which is how Sancia finds out that there is talk that one of Vanozza's sons could be her husband's child, not the Pope's, and that Juan, who thought himself too good to marry a bastard, is continually afraid it might be himself.

"One would think you would be happy," Sancia observes innocently. "As you so hate to be called a bastard."

"That peasant is not my father!"

He is such an easy mark. She is starting to lose interest in him. Cesare, now, Cesare, the oldest brother whom the Pope evidently grooms to succeed him one day, he's something else. Not a word said that doesn't hit where he means it to, and if he, too, should be full of anger, he doesn't show it. Like the rest of his family, he's very easy on the eye, and if Sancia had been married to him instead of Jofré, she wouldn't need others to make up for her boyish groom, she thinks.

Then there is the lady Lucrezia, who has come to the wedding from Pesaro, without her husband, whom no one seems to miss. She is of that fair complexion beloved by poets, all white and gold splendour, and Sancia thinks her skin would bruise easily, unlike Sancia's own. Lucrezia reminds her of the angels they sell on the streets of Naples year in, year out, for the Christmas nativity scenes. You cannot tell which is pure gold and which is dross, or whether there is clay or something sterner used beneath the paint, until you touch them, squeeze them, just a little.

"I am so happy," Sancia says, embracing Lucrezia, squeezing Lucrezia's arms, just a little, "to have a sister now."

"As am I," Lucrezia says. There is something cool and impenetrable in her blue gaze. But she does not move away, and waits until Sancia has to let go of her to greet Giulia Farnese.

As Lucrezia seems to be adored by her brothers, her father, her mother and her father's mistress alike, Sancia decides it will not do to make an enemy of her. Enemies are for those who can afford them, and Sancia can not. Her new husband will not give her influence or protection, boy that he is, and Juan knows only how to fuck people, one way or the other, and can't be counted on as an ally, either. As for the Pope, he is charming and pleasant to her, but Sancia can tell when a man regards her as desirable, and the Pope does not. So she will have to win his favour as a second daughter, and as much as he gazes fondly at the first one, he has not hesitated to marry Lucrezia to a Sforza for the Sforza armies. Men may be sentimental about daughters, but they would trade that sentiment for gain in a heartbeat, always. Cesare certainly would be an ally of power and influence, but whether he would also be reliable, it is impossible to tell yet. No, the women are her safest bet. She must make friends with Lucrezia, Giulia and Vanozza.

Her new husband is still in bed when Sancia rises on her first morning as a married woman and scandalizes her new Roman maid by getting out on the balcony clad only in her nightgown.

"I want to feel the air on my skin," Sancia says. The maid tells her the Roman air is foul more often than not, even here, in the Vatican, if the wind blows from the wrong direction.

Naples has it its own smells. But it also has, unlike Rome, a steady supply of water throughout the city since the time of the Romans, the effect of which Sancia has always taken for granted, until now. Above all, though, the air of Naples smells of the sea. She can't taste the slight saltiness on her lips if she breathes in here. Can taste nothing but her own dried sweat from the previous night, and the Borgias.

"I miss the sea," Sancia says because the tears on her cheeks demand some explanation, if only because she doesn't want the maid to gossip. Also, it's true. She never thought she would, having taken its presence for granted, always. The sea in the bay of Naples, and the mist in the morning; her brothers, whose strengths and flaws she does not have to figure out, because they are as familiar to her as the back of her hand; her father, terrible in his power and terrible in his decay, and her mother, not often present and so alive when she was, with her throaty laughter as effortless as the sunshine.

Nobody laughs in her new family. They smile, politely, secretively, threateningly, hopefully, invitingly, disdainfully, they smile in so many different ways. But if the Borgias also laugh, Sancia hasn't heard it yet.

She should have tried to see her mother more often. But that is a foolish thing to think, as she will not see her mother again in her life, and so Sancia says again "I miss the sea", and starts to practice a Borgia smile.

****

Sancia never used to get letters, or display much interest in politics, but as things go from bad to worse outside the walls of Rome, this starts to change. Rumours of French troops moving south mean ever more urgent letters from her brothers in Naples. What they imagine she can do in Rome, where more and more Cardinals announce a sudden desire to retreat to some diocese in the country they have not visited in eons, she does not know.

It is no letter from her brothers that tells her about their father's death, though. That is done by the Pope himself, whose spies must be faster than her brothers' messengers.

"When Lorenzo de' Medici had died," the Pope says after extending his regrets to her and sighs, "it was your father, my dear, who commented that Lorenzo had lived long enough for his own fame, but not long enough for Florence. I am afraid the same might be said of Ferrante and Naples now. "

She does not now what she feels. There are a few memories she has of her father, when he was still himself, that have warmth in them, warmth like his large hand on her head, or under her chin, telling her it pleased him she was such a pretty girl. There are more which have fear, for if at any time she had not pleased him any more, it would not have ended in her being sent to her mother. At best, he'd have flung her out in the streets, and at worst, well, everyone knows - everyone has known - what King Ferrante used to do to his enemies if they incurred his wrath. And finally, there are memories of pity; when he could no longer speak sensibly, or speak at all, or hear, yet was alive, he has reminded her of the volcano, that dark form over the bay which used to drown entire cities in its hot anger many years ago but which now sleeps, clad in ash and vines.

No, Sancia is not sure she mourns her father, not really; just that she feels the absence of something momentous which has always been there, throughout her life. On the other hand, she discovers she knows very well indeed what she feels about her city. The stories about the first town taken by the French have spread through Italy like wildfire. Sancia doesn't care how often Naples was conquered in some distant past that has never been of much interest to her. It must not be conquered again.

"Naples will still have my brothers to protect it," she says, even though she can't see any of the three doing more than playing at being soldier, "and your Holiness, surely."

This, after all, has been the reason for her marriage. The Pope doesn't want the French to have Naples any more than her brothers do.

"Naples is in our prayers," he says, watching her. He's waiting for something, and Sancia doesn't know what. He is not a terrifying man, like her father used to be, or one giving way to every emotion that fills him, like Juan, though he certainly laughs and frowns more openly than Cesare does. Because he usually treats Sancia with the same distracted fondness he shows her young husband, it is easy to forget that it was this man who out manoeuvred Cardinal della Rovere and every other Cardinal in the battle for the throne of St. Peter and, so the Cardinal swore, was responsible for the assassin showing up at Naples. Her legitimate brother had been so furious about that; the very idea of someone whose lethal skills he did not command himself that close to his own person, never mind his target had been the Cardinal, had terrified him.

She remembers her joke about being used to bleeding. At this moment, it doesn't seem funny any more. It suddenly occurs to her that if the Pope does not believe her brother will be able to hold Naples against the French, he has no more use for her, or an alliance with her house.

"God will listen to your prayers," Sancia says, her throat dry, "I am sure of it, your holiness. But if you yourself annoint my brother as King of Naples, then surely the French must desist. A crowned King is God's annointed; and there is no holier annointment than the one by your hands. No power on earth can wash it away."

"Blood can," he says, not unkindly, just matter-of-factly. Sancia stares at him.

"My dear child," he says, "the French king has already disregarded our command to stay in his own country. He seems to have every intention of forcing what will be left of the conclave by the time he arrives her to depose us. What on earth makes you think that if we were to put the crown of Naples on your brother's head, he could not simply cut this head off to pick up that crown? This, after all, is how the first Anjou took Naples from the Germans."

History again, useless history. She is living in the present. She will not argue history, even if had not always bored her. There is, however, one thing she can do, one thing she knows how to do. There is not a man alive who is not susceptible to flattery, and Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI., may or may not be as dangerous as her late father ever was, but he certainly is a man.

"You," Sancia says, choosing to take his question literally. "You make me think that, your Holiness."

He raises his eyebrow and says nothing.

"I cannot believe," she continues, hoping her voice sounds suitably admiring, with just the slightest undertone of teasing, hearing her mother say in the back of her mind that as long as you can make a man smile and make him sure you think him wonderful at the same time, nothing is lost, "that you would allow Cardinal della Rovere and the French to outwit you and dictate to God's Representative on Earth. When the Cardinal was in Naples, he called you many things, Holy Father. But he never called you weak. He never called you a fool. In fact, the very measure of his hatred was the extent to which he feared you. I am but a woman, your Holiness, but he is a prince of the Church and learned, and I therefore defer to his judgment. And thus, I am certain you will not allow the French to take Naples from my family, who is your family...Holy Father."

His face remains still just long enough to make Sancia fear she has overdone it, has been a street comedian where some finer acting was required. But then he smiles, a genuinely amused smile.

"Cardinal della Rovere always had a tendency to overreach," the Pope replies, "and if the ladies we've been privileged to know have taught us anything, it is that any woman who uses the phrase 'I am but a woman' should put us on our guard. But your confidence... is not entirely unfounded, my dear. We are indeed one family, and our fates will remain entwined with yours."

Which could mean everything or nothing as far as Naples is concerned, but her own status as his daughter-in-law seems to be secure for now.

Of course, if the French do manage to either kill or depose him, it also means Sancia will be doomed with the rest of the Borgias, but she doesn't allow herself to dwell on that possibility. One goal at a time, Sancia thinks, kisses her father-in-law's hand and withdraws.

 

****

The Pope has ordered Vanozza to leave and take Sancia with her. Lucrezia and Giulia have already been taken prisoner by the French, and while he awaits the invaders, he does not want them to have any more hostages. Cesare still has trouble convincing his mother to leave, near frantic with worry as she is for all of them.

"I should be where my children are," she argues, "and..."

She does not continue, but it is as plain as day she worries for the Pope as well. It remains both alien and compelling to Sancia, this relationship between her husband's parents. Her own mother may or may have not loved Ferrante while she was the King's mistress, but she certainly did not once he had tired of her and sent her away. And even in her days at the King's side, she had never addressed him by his name, whereas Sancia had at times overheard Vanozza refer to the Pope as "Rodrigo" when she talked to him.

There is pleasure, Sancia thinks, and there are alliances of mutual benefit. All this makes sense. But once there is no more pleasure, and the benefits are all reaped and secured, why should something else linger?

It is easier to ponder this than to imagine Rome sacked and Naples coming next, and herself reduced to what her mother used to be, just a pretty woman hoping to catch another rich man's eye when once she had the ambassadors of kings and queens congratulate her on her wedding.

"If his Holiness came with us," she hears herself suggest, "then maybe he could rally troops and allies in Naples?"

Mother and son look at her as if surprised she existed. Even Jofré, who is to go with them after vainly trying to badger Juan into taking him along as part of the papal army, seems startled. As a reminder that she is not really one of them, it would have hurt if she had let it; as it is, she has too much else to be concerned about .

"If the Holy Father leaves Rome," Cesare says, evidently taking her seriously enough for a straightforward reply, "he will not return, and the French will have a puppet Pope once more, as in the time of Avignon."

If one more person comes up with yet another useless historical comparison, Sancia will scream. Thankfully, her mother-in-law does not seem to be impressed, either. Vanozza snorts.

"That is not why he stays," she says. "I know your father, Cesare. He has wished and worked for this papacy all his life, but now that he has it, he fears it is not by God's will. And he needs to believe God is with him, or it will not have been worth it. That is why he stays. He is making this a trial, to see whether or not he is truly the Lord's voice on Earth. That's your father for you, God help us all."

Later, when they are finally on their way, Jofré asks: "But surely, if God didn't want Papa to be Pope, he would have let some other Cardinal win..."

"God might", Vanozza answers in a mixture of exasparation and pride. "Rodrigo wouldn't. If your father was a less capable man, my son, we would all have been happier."

Sancia thinks that she definitely would have been. She'd be in Naples right now, and the French wouldn't be marching towards it because Cardinal della Rovere would be Pope and too busy glorying in it to invite them in. She'd be home, looking over the sea, with or without some handsome man pleasing her, and then she'd dare the two Alfonsos and Ferrandino to put on a mask and visit the town again with her, to dance the tarantella and be alive, so alive, and no worries at all.

Then she remembers again. In the last, panicked letter from Naples, the younger Alfonso, her full brother, mentioned that illness was spreading. The cholera or even the plague, no one was certain yet. So even if she was in Naples right now, there would be fear, not joy.

"What if this really is God's judgment then?" Jofré asks, disconcerted, his young voice climbing high. "If Papa wasn't meant to be Pope... or have children... if this is...'"

God's judgment, Sancia thinks against her will, and something cold creeps up her spine. On Naples, too. That's what they all had said, hadn't they, only never in Ferrante's presence. God does not wish bastards on the throne. Spanish bastards with Italian blood in them. Not on the throne of Naples, or on the throne of St. Peter. With every turning of the wheel in the luxurious wagon that hurries them away from Rome, the thought grows stronger, refusing to go away: God's judgment, until her fear is so great that it turns into its opposite, and Sancia does what she always did when afraid, what she did as a child when she was first brought to the room full of corpses having their endless dinner in a blasphemous staging of the Last Supper. She laughs, because the alternative is to cry and cower, and then she will end up as a corpse as well. That is the first lesson she has ever learned.

"What ails you, Sancia?" Jofré asks, sounding downright concerned, bless him. it really is a pity she still can't find him more exciting than her lapdog, and she is starting to fear this will not change no matter how much he grows. Vanozza, on the other hand, does not look concerned. Her mouth is pressed together. Sancia recalls that Vanozza is still the most important ally for her to have. All the more so if both the papacy and the throne of Naples are lost. Vanozza owns two taverns and some part of the cloth trade in her own name. She will never be poor.

"God has better taste than that, my sweet," she returns, for blasphemy is in her blood. "His judgment will never come in French words. Only in Latin, the language of the Church. And the Holy Father speaks it better than anyone."

As joking reassurances mixed with flattery go, this is the best she can come up with right now, and it is enough to make Jofré smile and Vanozza give her an appraising look.

"You yourself called it a trial, dear mother," Sancia says to her, daring a gamble, "and the Holy Father a most capable man. Does it not follow, therefore, that he must win?"

The corners of Vanozza's mouth quirk. "If any man can, he will, daughter" she says, in that same acerbic fondness she usually has in her voice when talking of or to the Pope.

 

****

What the Pope ends up doing is impressing the French King so much that the man decides to be crowned by the Pope himself as what he already is, King of France, is better than sacking Rome and backing Cardinal della Rovere as an alternate Pope after an official deposition. This is either indeed God at work or the most effective use of charm Sancia has ever heard of. In any case, she is relieved, but not for long, as it turns out the French troops are still on their way to Naples, with Cesare as a hostage of the Pope's good faith.

"We heard that your confidence in us remained unshaken at our hour of need," the Pope says to her when she requests an audience to plead Naples' cause once more. "We are profoundly grateful."

Sancia can't tell whether he is being sarcastic or sincere. In any case, it seems Vanozza has spoken well of her to him, which is a good thing to know.

"Now our mutual family in Naples' hour of need is at hand," Sancia says pointedly, still kneeling in front of him.

"Indeed. We have heard about the sickness plaguing fair Naples," the Pope returns and just when she's starting to be infuriated with his evasiveness, something in Sancia clicks and she understands. He has had the same news she did, of course he did, but he has kept it from the French. The French king and his army are running straight into something they cannot defeat with their canons, or impress with their steel. Cholera or plague, no matter which one; the only time Sancia recalls an epidemic haunting Naples before had led to the King and the court fleeing to the countryside and not returning until it was well and truly over. Her brothers will be gone by now. The French might march into Naples. But then they will die there.

"And his Eminence the Cardinal of Valencia?" she asks slowly, because Cesare did leave with the French army; she had seen him do it, and she can't imagine the Pope leaving his son at the mercy of the French once they figure out they have been duped to their doom.

The Pope steeples his fingers. "For all that God has seen it fit to bless our decision to stay," he replies, "sometimes it is wise to retreat. Quickly. Our son knows that."

In other words, he must have told Cesare to make his escape from French custody as soon as he could. Sancia can't stop the smile that crept up on her.

"I hope your brothers know that as well," the Pope adds, and her levity ends.

"They do, your holiness." Of course they do. Well, Ferrandino and the younger of the Alfonsos definitely do; Alfonso the legimate could be tempted to brazen it out and return early to gloat over the dead French, but surely the others would restrain him, surely they would.

"Well," the Pope says amiably, "then we can leave Naples to the Lord, for now, and turn towards the rest of our family troubles."

For a moment, Sancia is at a loss to know what he refers to. Then she recalls that hers is not the only marriage whose value has been called into question by the French invasion. The Sforzas did not deliver their promised martial support, and therefore Lucrezia's husband Giovanni is of no use whatsoever. She also seems to have no reason to be fond of him.

"My dear sister Lucrezia," Sancia says cautiously, "will not leave us again?"

"Indeed she will not," the Pope returns with satisfaction. It is to be an annulment then, Sancia concludes, which was something she has feared for herself after hearing about the Pope's newfound friendship with the French king. But while her own marriage to Jofré has no issue and thus could be easily declared invalid, Lucrezia, unless Sancia's eyes deceived her when seeing her sister-in-law again, is actually pregnant.

Well, the Pope is the Pope. And apparently willing to let his bastard daughter have a bastard without feeling ashamed of it, now that God has confirmed his right to the papacy. Sancia remembers that awful fear of God's judgment that had crept on her on the road away from Rome, and laughing it away because she could do no other. The Pope, while in a good mood, does not seem to be jesting, though, when he says: "We have much to be grateful for."

He certainly does. Maybe they all do. Maybe the rest of Christendom is wrong, and God really favours bastards, especially bastards of Spanish origin with some Italian blood in them. That, Sancia concludes, is a good conviction to have. And with this in mind, she suddenly can see a new possibility dawn. She still needs to make Lucrezia her ally, after all, and to make sure the Pope can't turn his back on Naples should his gamble with the French slain by sickness not work the way he hopes.

"Your holiness," she says, "nothing would please me more than for Lucrezia to be my sister twice over. Any of my brothers would be the happiest man alive, and as for my city - who better to rule it than a Borgia?"

He gives her his amused smile again, which is utterly unsurprised, and Sancia understands that he must have been hoping for something like this as soon as it became obvious the Sforza marriage would not work out. A way to make Naples more beholden to him than with her own marriage, and a kingdom to give to Lucrezia, both.

"We shall see," the Pope says. "Who can claim to know the future? But it may be indeed God's will."

If her brother marries Lucrezia - any of her brothers - then Sancia will never be discarded. Even better than that, she will be able to visit Naples at her leisure, as often as she wants, for the Pope, having been burned by the Sforza disaster, will encourage constant family visits to his daughter once she is married again. And Naples itself will never be given to the French to pacify them, or, for that matter, to the legimate and purely Spanish line of the House of Aragon. Not if the Pope can have one of his own family near the throne or on it instead.

For a moment, Sancia can taste it filling her again, the salty breeze, can feel the morning mist rising from the bay prickling on her skin. She wants to smile and nod, but she can't; it breaks out of her once more in undefeated force: laughter, which has no past, and may not have a future. But it is her present, and it makes her whole.